Our backyard is a big, leafy, tree-filled piece of nature. It is filled with small trees, tall trees, thick trees, thin trees, vines, ground cover, lily of the valley, daffodils, tall weeds that are easy to pull up, and short stubby weeds I have to dig out of the ground. It is a very fertile, fresh, and unmanicured place. We have all sorts of birds and wildlife passing through. But aside from the thorny weeds, it’s a pretty harmonious place.
One day, I was standing in the backyard with my father, who spends a lot of his time during visits getting it to appear less fertile and more in control. He pointed up to the tall trees and noticed all their branches grew out of one side of the trunk. The side that got the most sun. And the branches only started above our roof line, also because of the sun.
We have other trees that are in the full sun whose branches spread every which way and take up the whole sky. These other trees seemed to look at where they were planted and said “I can make this work. I have to or I will die.” And they made it work.
I often find myself saying of my sons “We aren’t sure how their trees will grow.” Meaning, I am not sure what path life will lead them down, but I know they will find a way to grow and live and thrive. It could be different from the way my tree grew, or their father’s. But I know that their trees will grow. They will adapt and thrive around their obstacles and challenges. Their roots grow deep into the earth and their branches long, strong, and stretched to wherever the sun shines. Everything is in its place for a reason. Everything is by design. All the pieces fit and work together to create something unique and amazing.
People are not unlike my trees. They develop different ways of coping with the world. Organizing their place in it. Navigating their way through their lives. Protecting themselves and getting what they need out of it. Out of this comes different perspectives.
Everyone on this earth sees the world through different lenses, and even those lenses change with the situation. I see it as a White Liberal Mom from the Midwest. Sometimes I see it through the lens of a Mother of a Special Needs Child. Sometimes I see things through the lens of a Middle-Class College-Educated Professional.
I will never see it through the lens of someone from a different race or cultural background. Or who grew up in a big city. Or who grew up on a farm. Or who works in a factory. Or who is an immigrant. Or a Muslim. My tree wasn’t planted where their tree was planted. I developed different perspectives and ways to survive and priorities from someone who has different experiences than me. Not wrong. Not inferior. Just different.
So, the next time you want say to someone “I don’t understand why you don’t agree with me.” Or “Why are you so offended by that? I am not offended. You shouldn’t be so sensitive.” “Why can’t you learn English?” “Why can’t you be like everyone else?” “Why don’t you pull yourself up by your bootstraps like so many other people have?”
Instead say this: “Help me understand.” Help me understand why you need to carry a gun at all times. What happened that made you feel it was necessary? Help me understand why you feel that illegal immigrants are taking “American jobs.” Help me to understand why you were offended when the President didn’t specifically mention White Supremacists in his first response to Charlottesville. Help me understand why this matters to you. Help me understand why it’s insensitive to say that “All lives matter.” Help me understand why you think abortion should be illegal.
When we understand the “why” of someone’s beliefs, we establish a bridge to that person. When we understand why their trees grow the way they have, and respect the way they’ve grown, and their reasons for growing that way, we can move forward together.
Every marker on someone’s personality is there for a reason. And most of the time that reason is a place to start the groundwork for understanding, which supplies the foundation on which we build relationships.
When we ask each other questions, we learn from one another. We know our neighbors better. We learn context. We respect each other. We respect each other’s journeys. We appreciate one another. We forgive. We learn to seek the sunlight.